Thursday, February 05, 2015

Once notorious uranium waste site in Fernald, Ohio, beckons tourists June 13, 2010

June 13, 2010
Lilies bloom at the Fernald Preserve in southwest Ohio, where a factory once processed uranium for nuclear weapons.
Lilies bloom at the Fernald Preserve in southwest Ohio, where a factory once processed uranium for nuclear weapons. / U.S. Department of Energy
Fernald is one of only two reclaimed sites with a visitors center. / U.S. Department of Energy
FERNALD, Ohio -- At first, the Fernald Preserve inspires jokes.
"Let's come back and go hiking -- in 500 years," I say, checking out trails marked with radiation monitors.
My mom and stepdad make cracks about fish with three eyes and birds with six wings, ha ha. Still, we're a little nervous.
Fernald Preserve used to be the site of the factory where uranium was processed for nuclear bombs.

From 1951 to 1989, it was known as the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, a secretive facility in the middle of farm country in southwest Ohio. It produced nearly 70% of all uranium used in America's nuclear weapons. After it closed, cleaning up the badly contaminated site took the U.S. Department of Energy $4.4 billion and 17 years.
But in 2008, incredibly, it reopened as a nature preserve. With 7 miles of hiking trails and a handsome visitors center, it has attracted more than 17,000 tourists so far.
"We think we did a good job," says David Geiser, director of legacy management for the DOE.
That may be an understatement.

Glowing example

It may sound crazy to make a tourist attraction out of a former radioactive contamination site. And to be sure, visitors can check out attractions that aren't exactly part of your average park:

  • The Cold War Garden. The garden of native plants is marked with bricks commemorating those who worked at the plant. In its heyday, the staff approached 3,000.
  • The Weapons to Wetlands trail. It overlooks ponds, wetlands -- and the mound where 3 million cubic yards of radioactive waste is buried in an entombed landfill covered with prairie grass. (Fernald's most toxic debris was shipped to a nuclear waste dump in Texas.)
  • Visitors center and museum. This is what makes this place worth visiting. Once an American Indian and pioneer settlement, Fernald became critical to the arms race during the Cold War.
    Exhibits remind you of the "duck and cover" mindset when the facility was launched. You learn how uranium was processed, each step so secretive that workers didn't know what their own colleagues did. You see daily life at the plant, where little radiation-detecting badges were casually worn on cheerful uniforms.
    Photos and videos describe the scandalous discovery in 1984 that 300 pounds of uranium dust had been let loose into the surrounding community -- and that radioactive waste was blithely stored in silos or buried out back.
    Then, the exhibit describes how the great damage was cleaned up, in a huge but ultimately successful effort.
    In a few thousand years, the place will be good as new.

    Bombs to blooms

    As a tourist site, the Fernald Preserve isn't exactly at the top of vacationers' must-see lists, admits director Jane Powell. She has heard all the jokes about her glow-in-the-dark park, which, she says, "reveals people's fears and biases." But the area is once again safe for living creatures, she says. And out of 90 radioactive contamination sites cleaned by the DOE's Office of Legacy Management, Fernald and the small Weldon Spring Site near St. Louis, Mo., are the only ones with visitors centers and open to the public.
    (Rocky Flats near Denver, where triggers were made for nuclear bombs, became a national wildlife refuge in 2007. But plans for 16 miles of hiking trails and a visitors center have stalled.)
    At Fernald Preserve, the main clue that you're not in your local park is the sight of tall, thin dosimeter poles evenly spaced across the property. They constantly check ionizing radiation levels.
    "I can very happily report the amount is very minimal," Powell says. "It is well below background levels. You would get more exposure getting your routine dentist X-rays."
    Still, Fernald, once poisoned, carries the enduring scars of the nuclear age. It is a 1,050-acre preserve, not a park. No dog walking. No picnics. No camping. No picking up random rocks. No one can live there, and no businesses can ever be built there. You can walk, run, watch birds and visit the visitors center. You can admire the effort to return the site to what it looked like in the early 1800s, with native Ohio grasses and trees, prairie and savannah.
    Unseen by visitors is the continuing cleanup of the giant Miami aquifer underneath Fernald. It was partially contaminated by leaking uranium years ago. Pumps cleaning the aquifer will continue to do so until at least 2026, Powell says. The federal government will monitor air and water long beyond that.
    But in terms of the whole property, she says, "nature is taking it back to something I'd like to say Lewis and Clark would recognize."
    Contact ELLEN CREAGER : 313-222-6498 or